July 3, 2014

‘Framed’ Questions Western Attitudes Toward Africa

It’s a genuine human impulse to lend a helping hand, but what if we’re reaching out with eyes and ears shut? In a time of social media activism and ‘voluntourism,’ a new documentary aims to question Western attitudes about Africa, arguing that our best efforts are often undermined by longstanding colonial approaches.

Kenyan photojournalist/activist Boniface Mwangi

In Framed, directors Cassandra Herrman and Kathryn Mathers posit that all too often, Western efforts toward Africa are fundamentally flawed in that they “fail to establish a relationship between two people as humans.” Humanitarian initiatives are instead approached with what they see as a savior-victim dynamic.

“We’re making the documentary film, Framed, because we recognize a lot of Americans want to do good in Africa, with the best of intentions, but the way they go about it often doesn’t play out well for Africans,” the filmmakers wrote at the website, Africa Is A Country.

“Why is it that we never see images of African professionals and change-makers in pop culture and the media?,” Herrman and Mathers ask in a press release. “It’s time to take a second look at the framing of Africa in crisis, to listen to African perspectives and revisit the intention to help in Africa, which, while sincere, might be compounding the inequalities we hope to erase.”

In a trailer for the film, Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan blogger, argues that many well-intentioned initiatives “imply that the power lies in America,” instead of regional governments or local initiatives on the ground.” She insists that this is the same problematic narrative that has colored the West’s relationships with Africa for centuries.

Another scene shows Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan photojournalist and activist, on a visit to the U.S. in which he advises students to work more locally. “Why do you want to fly all that way, and on your way to the airport you pass poverty, to go and help poverty in Kenya?” he says. “Africa doesn’t need a savior—America needs a savior.”

In an email to Fast Company, Cassandra Herrman maintains that she doesn’t disavow all Western humanitarian aid, nor condemn organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Rather, the filmmakers seek to reframe the lens through which we see the needs of Africa. “We hope the film will show that Africans already have the capacity to inspire and empower themselves, and yet the simplistic and unchanging messaging around aid robs Africans of having agency in their own development.”

The makers of Framed have taken to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to ask for money in order to complete post-production. With little over a week to go, the project has raised some three-quarters of their $28,000 goal.   

“We want the film to speak to young people who have a sincere energy for change, but haven’t considered the questions that Framed is raising.”


Further recommended reading:
The White-Savior Industrial Complex by Teju Cole for the Atlantic

“One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference.'”


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text by: Blaine Skrainka

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